*Resurrecting the Champ (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Tinseltown
I heard: "Josh Hartnett befriends crazy old bum." And I thought: "Oh no, the bum's gonna turn out to be an angel who teaches him the real meaning of Christmas," or some mushy claptrap like that.
I should have known better.
I could see that Hartnett has been trying in his recent films to get past relying on his pretty face. I knew that director Rod Lurie has made a point of generally not falling back on the obvious and the melodramatic, even when the temptation may have been there (see his political drama The Contender). And then there was Samuel L. Jackson, god among actors, playing the bum.
I was wrong in my expectations about this one.
Mea culpa. There's not a lick of phony sentiment in Resurrecting the Champ, even though it does kinda turn out that the bum teaches the other guy something about the true meaning of father-son relationships. There are other lessons, too, in things like professional ethics and personal integrity. Actually, the whole flick is a general beat-down of a reality that many of us live with: a cool and contemporary detachment from ourselves. This isn't exactly the stuff that feel-good movies are made of it's the stuff that hey-chew-on-this movies are made of.
Hartnett plays Denver Times sports reporter Erik Kernan, and he's struggling in his work: His boss (Alan Alda) is spectacularly unimpressed with his pedestrian writing. Then, one night in a grungy Denver alley, jackpot: Kernan rescues an old homeless man from a beating by macho cretins, and Champ, as the old homeless man calls himself, claims to be the burned-out, alcoholic husk of a once-famous championship prizefighter, Battling Bob Satterfield.
Kernan doesn't hear the warning bells ringing that we do. He's too desperate for a meaty story to make his name on. Savvy film fans will surely get an early clue as to how Erik's misguided ambition will come back around to bite him in the ass, but that's OK. This isn't a story about keeping secrets from the audience it's based, in fact, on a true story written for the Los Angeles Times Magazine by J.R. Moehringer. Here we have an examination of the role of journalism in the modern media culture that goes beyond a simple questioning of professional ethics and on to the deeper questioning of audience ethics: Does an audience get the story it wants rather than the tougher, more complicated reality? And do journalists do the same thing?
There aren't any easy answers here. But there is Jackson's pleasing performance. Champ corrects someone who calls him a "bum," but everything about his complex motivations goes on to question, in fact, whether Champ might be something of a bum, in the more traditional sense of the word. In Jackson's hands, Champ is neither a disposable member of society nor a wholly likable one, either.
There is also great pleasure to be had in seeing Hartnett come into his own as an actor here. Much as Kernan ferociously latches onto Champ, Hartnett grabs his conflicted character as an opportunity to stretch; in Resurrecting the Champ, Hartnett is genuinely emotionally accessible for the first time on film.
Yeah, I was wrong about this one. I should have known better.